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Sunday, Jun 25, 2017
Crime & Courts

Misuse of Florida’s driver database is often personal

After relations with his girlfriend grew cold last year, Ryan Elliott Butler stalked her and set fires along the way, torching her car and damaging the home of her friend, prosecutors say.

As disturbing as the crimes were, privacy advocates see even broader questions arising from the way they were carried out.

The 30-year-old Temple Terrace man worked as a dispatcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and misused his access to a state motorist database to gather the personal information that provided him a road map for his crimes, prosecutors say.

Butler’s case is one of more than 400 statewide during a recent 18-month period where misuse was reported in accessing the state’s DAVID system — the Driver and Vehicle Information Database maintained by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Because many of the individual reports include more than one example of access, the number is actually higher, according to a review by the Tampa Bay Times of millions of inquiries made to the system between Jan. 1, 2014, and May 4, 2016.

Most of the 432 inquiries deemed to be misuse involved officers acting in the line of duty who accessed the DAVID system by mistake. Still, the threat to privacy is considered serious enough that a number of police agencies have changed their policies, greatly restricting access.

The Times review reveals at least eight cases where officers and government employees accessed the system clearly for personal use — to track former lovers, gain information for use in child custody and other family court cases, check up on fellow officers — and in one case, to seek personal information on celebrities Justin Beiber, Gregg Allman and Dawn Wells, famous as Mary Ann Summers on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.”

“I think privacy is a concern for everyone,” Wells told the Times last week. As for misusing the data, she said, “It is totally wrong for police officers.”

• • •

In fiscal year 2015-16, there were more than 23 million inquiries made to the DAVID system.

The system provides driver and motor vehicle information, including emergency contact names and telephone numbers. It is designed primarily for use in traffic accidents and other emergencies, said Alexis Bakofsky, spokeswoman for Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

From the list of all inquiries submitted, the Times sought records of misuse from two dozen of the agencies — including those in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, federal and state agencies, and the four departments statewide with the highest level of misuse.

Though a small fraction of those inquiries appears to have been outside the line of duty, the issue is cause for concern, said Dave Maass, investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group based in San Francisco.

“Law enforcement officers aren’t perfect,” Maass said. “They are human and can be tempted. When you have databases containing information on everyone, it is very tempting to human beings to go playing around in there.”

After reviewing files sent to him by the Times, Maass said it appears Florida has strong audit practices in place for DAVID.

It is “heartening to see that some law enforcement agencies are taking these cases seriously,” he said, “and that these are not just things people can get away with, but people can be punished and forced to resign.”

Butler, the former Fish and Wildlife dispatcher, had access to several law enforcement and government databases. The DAVID system enabled him to track his ex-girlfriend’s family and friends, according to the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.

He set fire to a Plant City home in December while she was visiting a friend there and torched her car in February, prosecutors say. Butler apologized to his supervisors, resigned from his job, and now faces charges including arson, aggravated stalking and misusing the DAVID database.

Butler did not respond to attempts to contact him.

• • •

Relationship issues are a main motivation cited in agency reports on deliberate misuse of the DAVID system. The same is true nationwide, Maass said, to the point that the National Security Agency has given the practice a name — LOVEINT, for “love intelligence.”

Last Oct. 16, Port Richey police Officer Timothy McVey accessed the DAVID system several times to track his ex-girlfriend and seek an advantage in a child custody dispute, according to Port Richey Police Department records obtained by the Times.

At one hearing, McVey introduced evidence that the father of the man with whom his ex-girlfriend lived had been detained under the state’s Baker Act for emergency mental health evaluation. McVey was trying to prove the home was unfit for the two children he had with his ex-girlfriend, investigators say.

Information about Baker Act commitments is private, so McVey’s ex-girlfriend, her new boyfriend and his father complained he had no right to access the information let alone use it in a court case.

Port Richey police found McVey had violated department policy through misuse of the DAVID system. It also filed a criminal complaint, but the State Attorney’s Office opted not to prosecute, police records show.

McVey resigned from the force in March, the records show.

• • •

A lieutenant with the state Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, Adam Rivero, misused databases including DAVID to gain influence over criminal proceedings against his son, according to the inspector general in the Florida Department of Financial Services Office.

In all, Rivero used state fire marshal logos for nonbusiness purposes, issued an official “be on the lookout” notice to law enforcement agencies about an individual he believed was having sex with his 15-year-old daughter and misused the DAVID system by looking up information about his children, his wife and ex-wife among others, the inspector general said.

In one case, Rivero said he used DAVID to ensure his son, a registered sex offender, was complying with rules about where he can live. In another case, he said he sought information about his ex-wife because she was convicted of driving under the influence and he saw her driving.

The inspector general sustained accusations against Rivero in July 2014, saying he accessed DAVID, and other databases, “for his own personal gain.”

Rivero was fired for misuse of the system. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

• • •

Celebrities, as well as relatives, were among the targets in one case of misuse in the DAVID system involving a police officer at Tampa International Airport.

The officer, Gerald Coakley, was accused of wrongfully seeking to obtain personal information in 2013 on Victoria Huggins, a Port St. Lucie political activist and unsuccessful office-seeker.

He was also found to have looked up information on his ex-wife, his children and the acting airport director, as well as members of the Allman Brothers band and other celebrities.

Coakley “used the system like a search engine by retrieving DAVID files in order to view people’s personal information and photos contained in their driver’s license records,” said a 2013 memo to Coakley from then airport police Chief Paul F. Sireci.

A public records request by the Times showed that in addition to the Allman Brothers, Coakley looked up information about jazz musician Pat Metheny, pop singer Justin Bieber, former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg and Dawn Wells, whose Mary Ann character joined movie star Ginger as the single females among “Gilligan’s Island” castaways.

Coakley and his attorney in the case did not respond to attempts to contact them.

Wells, in a telephone interview, expressed concern about having her records wrongfully searched.

“My character was an interesting character,” Wells said. “There is passion and sexuality that happens with my character, but in a nice way. A boy’s first crush. The soldier coming home. Not a lot of seedy stuff. Ginger might get more of that.”

Wells was not aware Coakley searched her name and said she hasn’t had a lot of problem with stalkers. Still, she is concerned.

“Someone obsessed with you may try to find out where you live or what you are doing.”

• • •

Most officers who misused the DAVID system did so in the line of duty, the Times review shows.

The Boca Raton Police Department filed 26 reports of misuse of the DAVID system between January 2014 and May 2016, more than any other agency during the time period. The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office had the second most, 18, and the sheriff’s offices in Pasco and Highlands counties were tied for third at 10 apiece.

In nearly all instances, officers and deputies accessed the DAVID system in the line of duty without realizing it constituted misuse or inadvertently accessed information because of a system-design flaw that has been corrected.

“The violations were self-reported, demonstrating that we were policing ourselves well,” said Sandra Boonenberg, spokeswoman for the Boca Raton police.

Nassau County officials said they haven’t had any issues since 2014. The same is largely true in Pasco County, said sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Doll.

“Some deputies stated that they were doing it for job-related purposes, unknowing that this was a violation,” Doll said. “We are encouraged that subsequent training of our deputies has resulted in no violations in 2015 and only one this year.”

Robert Jordan, information services administrator with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, expressed frustration with the DAVID system, saying the rules were poorly explained, and in some cases, make no sense.

A case in point: In February 2015, deputies went to a house, heard dogs barking, saw a back door open and noticed a sunken boat. Concerned about the owner’s well-being, they accessed the DAVID system seeking emergency contact information to see if he was missing.

“We didn’t consider that to be an improper use, but the state told me it was,” Jordan said.

As with other agencies, Highlands officials gave the deputies remedial training in the DAVID system.

Many agencies, including Boca Raton police, have restricted DAVID access to communications center personnel, and in some cases, supervisors only. Still, the number of overall reports of misuse increased from 178 in 2014 to 221 last year.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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